By Cullen Curtis
Seeking something other than aerobics and traditional fitness, Holly Curtis was introduced to the dance form of Nia in 1993 while doing graduate work in kinesiology at the University of Texas. Now she is one of 15 Nia trainers worldwide. She travels every month to conduct trainings of the 25-year-old movement practice. Holly has trained nearly all of the Nia teachers in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
SFR: To the uneducated eye, Nia may not appear to have a core set of movement principles. Some have even said it looks ridiculous.
HC: There is a method to the madness. There is a joyful dancer in everybody because we were all children. And we all did it. It’s called universal joy. We were born with it.
Explain some of the methods.
We use nine classic movement forms: Three from the martial arts [T’ai Chi, Aikido, Tae Kwon Do]; Three from the dance arts [Jazz, Modern, Duncan]; Three from the healing arts [Yoga, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais].
And there are 52 fundamental steps and patterns—for instance, the upward block, bow stance, pelvic circle and the clock step. Then we energize the movement so that it has a style and a personality—it’s still a cross-front cha cha cha, but I can make it a jazzy one or a Tai Chi one.
But each teacher is able to apply so much of his or her personality.
That is really the nature of Nia, how it honors the spirit. When we define spirit in Nia—Body, Mind, Spirit—spirit means the uniqueness of the individual and how they move. What a teacher brings honors that. It’s built into the work.
How has Nia evolved over its 25 years?
Originally, Debbie Rosas and Carlos Rosas [the founders] called it Non Impact Aerobics (NIA), but it’s not actually non-impact; it’s low impact. They had an article in Time Magazine; they were on the Sally Jesse Raphael show; they had a beautiful book and they were ready to go at the time that the scientific community began studying aerobic dance and basically discredited them. Then they called it Neuromuscular Integrated Action, but it didn’t really capture the work. Then, six or seven years ago, they decided no more acronyms and the associations showed up: In Swahili, Nia means ‘purpose;’ in Hebrew, it means ‘to create subtle movements.’ They felt like there was some metaphysical guidance.
In the early days, there was a lot of effort to get through emotional traumas, but they realized that they didn’t need to take people to a confrontational place for them to have a deep and meaningful experience—the movement and music would do that. They also decided that building a program that could be duplicated and delivered to the general population was the important thing.
What is Nia in Santa Fe like compared with a similarly sized community?
We are pretty on par with other cities where there are Nia pockets. I think we have 40 classes a week in Santa Fe. And that’s pretty good.
How many teachers are there worldwide?
[There are] 2,200, 13 trainers [not including the Rosas] cannot do very much, but their vision is to have 50. Even though we may have one training with 20 to 40 people, it’s not that many when you want something that covers the globe in the way that yoga does, where there are maybe 20,000 or more teachers worldwide. People say, just get on the Oprah show, but then we’d get all this exposure, people would look for a class and not find one.
Is yoga Debbie’s and Carlos’ frame; do they want that kind of proliferation?
Oh, I think they would love that. They see that movement toward yoga classes as really representative of how the population is longing for another approach. They see that Nia fits into that.
Do you see more women than men in classes?
It’s always more women than men. Obviously Carlos is all guy and you can get a heck of a workout and be very fierce in Nia. But it takes a particular kind of man to say I am going to go take a dance class.
My husband would never do it.
Now my partner does come. And he really loves it. He can’t do it very well, he says, but he just loves being in the environment, where the people are so joyful and open. He just doesn’t practice enough.
On the ‘do it well’ question—Nia encourages its participants to use vocal sounds and to interact and sometimes touch others. I feel I’d be doing Nia better if I could do that stuff, but it makes me uncomfortable.
That’s a pretty common experience. We use sound and space differently. Sometimes we dance together or we move in a group to break the structure of, ‘here I am in class in my little spot.’ We do know that people feel that edge, and that it creates an opportunity for you as a participant to move through it.
I know, I know.
We also have a principle called ‘Natural Time,’ meaning there will be the right time and the right place for you to really feel like you can do it. But a good teacher is going to set it up knowing that 50 to 60 percent of the class feels the same kind of unease.
So you think it takes practice.
I think it is practice. But what my partner means is that he thinks he cannot do the step. What you are talking about is another layer. In Nia, you can just go with sensation. Or you can think about ‘what part of my personality can I express?’ Or ‘how much do I want to grow?’ As a facilitator you ask, ‘What’s the best way to support someone into shifting toward a new level without forcing them?’ I do not want to be overly protective, but I do know that if it’s too much for somebody they are going to go get a drink of water. I did it, too.
And what about the sound?
It’s part of the energetics of Nia. When we activate sounds, we engage the trunk of the body. The diaphragm, lungs and body get used in a different way. People have to bust through inhibitions and limitations when they start to make sound. But we do everything for the body because Nia is a body program, a fitness program. Sound helps condition the body. The more a teacher can communicate that and give people the science, there will be more acceptance.
It’s very different from a yoga class, a class in which the teacher is always correcting. There’s no correction in Nia.
No, there’s room for adaptation and that goes back to the movement system, which we call ‘The Body’s Way,’ recognizing how the body is designed to move based on the skeletal structure. The ball and socket joints are meant to role and the spine is meant to undulate; the feet are meant to go from heel to toe. And then there’s your body’s way—your habits, your tendencies, your injuries. If you apply yourself, you are going to get your body’s way close to The Body’s Way. This is different from ballet class where you are being asked to do something with the body that is not natural to it.
What do the experts or critics say about the level of fitness one can achieve from doing Nia?
They give very good results, but we don’t really have the same assessment outlook as a more traditional program. Nia is much more process-oriented, and yet now we know—since we have a group of people who have been dancing consistently for a long time—that the conditioning, the fitness level and the agility all improve. Most Nia teachers you could consider athletic, but I do not need to push my body to the edge every time. That’s different from rebalancing the body and healing. There are many of us Nia teachers who do not do anything else but Nia.
What has Nia done for you that you couldn’t imagine?
I was one of those people who loved to dance as a child. Nia has given me an opportunity to mix fitness with artistic expression and to have a more artful life. I do not know that I would have found another way. I never could have imagined that I would have the outreach and the ability to inspire people.